5 Small Ways to Set the Example

When I ask candidates to describe their leadership style, quite often I hear, “I set the example.” The military and many business books describe the importance of setting the example, and it has become cliché in my opinion. I question if we – yes, I mean “we,” which includes me – set the “example” as well as we think. I question whether we speak and use our words to set the example rather than use our actions?

Your team members, whether peers or subordinates, notice the small actions much more than the big impacting accomplishments. When Roger Cameron delivered the Cameron-Brooks Alumni speech on Sunday night at the Conference, one of the points he made was, “It will be the major accomplishments and achievements that will get you promoted, but it will be the little things that create your reputation.” Eventually, that reputation will catch up to you. Here are my recommendations for 5 small ways to set the example.

1. Listen to your mom: “Mind your P’s and Q’s.” As a child, when I visited a relative or spent the night at a friend’s house, my mom used to tell me, “Now, mind your P’s and Q’s.” This meant to mind my manners and, more specifically, to say, “Please” (P’s) and “Thank You” (Q). I am sure many of you also heard something like this. Just because you get into a position of authority doesn’t mean you stop using them! I once asked another business professional why he didn’t say “Please” or ‘Thank You” to his team members. He stated, “This is what they get paid to do. This is their job.” I just do not agree with this, yet I know this thought is out there. Don’t believe me? Just get on a commercial airplane, which I do just about every week, and notice the lack of manners when drinks are served. Count how often you hear “Please” or “Thank you” when the drink cart comes around. I guarantee the lack of “P’s” and “Q’s” will far outnumber the times they are used. Make it a habit to say “Please” in your requests and directives, and say “Thank you” when it is completed and done to standard – even if it is their job. Your team will notice how you treat others and the next thing you know, they will begin modeling your manners, “Minding their P’s and Q’s,” creating a positive work environment.

2. Be a sponge. A sponge soaks up, absorbs the spilled milk, and picks up spills. In this instance, I don’t mean being a sponge in learning, but rather be the sponge that can absorb the bad news, listen to others vent or step into a crucial conversation and create calm. Your team is going to bring you problems and complaints. If you resonate it back by getting upset, becoming frustrated or engaging in a crucial conversation in an open environment where everyone else can see or hear, you just doubled the negative energy – the energy the person brought to you and what you resonated back. Yet, when you are a sponge, you absorb it, you soak it up and it no longer exists. You will need to become a good listener, know when and how to take action, and how to effectively engage in Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations, two excellent books written by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.

3. Be on Time. Because you are a leader and very busy does not mean you have an excuse to be late to an appointment or meeting. Would you keep a customer, important client, or your boss waiting? Of course not because they are important to you. So, what does it say if you are late to a meeting with a peer team member or subordinate? It says they are not important to you or not as important as others. If you have scheduled a meeting or personal appointment, or the other person has scheduled a meeting with you, obviously, those people are important enough to spend time with them. So, why would you be late and communicate to them with your example that you do not value them? As soon as you start showing up late to meetings, expect others to as well.

4. Listen with intent to understand, or in other words, “Zip it!” Do you like to be interrupted? No? Neither do other people. Yet, even I, whom I consider to be a good listener, interrupt. I do it with my words, when I have an important point I can’t wait to get out, and I step right on someone’s sentence or thought. I also do it non-verbally. This is the worst kind. I sometimes shut down listening and start formulating what I am going to say. I might “look” like I am listening, but I am really not. I am focusing on what I want to say. Your team notices the respect you give to others in the way you listen from formal meetings to one-on-one casual conversations. If you interrupt, they will as well. In the book, The 8th Habit, by Stephen Covey, he describes the “Indian Talking Stick,” where the person who is talking holds the stick and he feels like he has been heard and understood and then he passes it on to the next person to speak. You may not have a “stick,” but I recommend you visualize one and only speak when the person is done and understood. Your team will learn from you, and you will have more productive and respectful meetings and conversations.

5. Stop complaining. I am a recovering complainer. Not a recovered complainer. I am still working on it. A turning point for me occurred when I was in college. My upbeat, jovial roommate Steve had the same academic major and ROTC as well. One early morning with many ROTC commitments and exams, I must have really been complaining quite a bit because Steve came right out and said, “Alright Captain Complain!” Wow, that stung. No one wants to be known as a complainer and bringing others down. I wasn’t even aware I was complaining so much; it had become such a habit. If you complain, I guarantee your team can hear you and they will complain as well. It is okay to disagree with decisions and policies, and to get down at times, but like the old commercial, “Never let them see you sweat,” you never want them to see you complain. Do this in private with a trusted and respected peer who can let you vent or write in a journal. So, this is not so much of an example of what to do, but rather to stop doing.

There are many more small things you can do to set the example, and these 5 are at the top of my list personally, and to get you thinking. Small steps setting the example will help you build a reputation as a person who values and respects other people, no matter their position or level in the organization. Roger would also say in his Alumni speech, “You will not rise to the top of any organization….” He would then pause and look directly at the group, and finish with, “Unless others want you to and help you get there.” To get the support and build an effective team to achieve desired results, you have to set the right example.

Joel Junker

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